Shaigol

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Peace, they sing. There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams. I slumber unaware, lost to time, thick cords of ancient song wound about my soul like iron manacles.

Then a lone rogue voice echoes in the dark. Discord enters the fray, and the music is diminished.

I stir at last.

The spell that binds me to the Earth has weakened. Groggy, I try to open my eyes, to let the light of the world seep in. But that ever-present song, though compromised, holds me back.

Do not think of the waking world and its manifold worries, but sleep and dream in peace.

Yet my soul is restless, and I am no longer satisfied to obey its urgent strains.

No more sleep.

Visions of a long-ago past flicker before my eyes. Power. Subjugation. War. Like a kaleidoscope, they are only abstract shimmerings without shape or form. But my memory, roused at last, refuses to be silenced again.

There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams.

The rogue voice grows louder, counters the binding with so much force that it cannot be outspoken. A disciple of mine, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve had disciples…

A recollection takes shape.

Fire covering the Earth, and with it, the sound of men, women, and children burning. Their skin crackles. Blisters. Peels like paper. There is laughter. Is it mine? A fond memory, that one, a reminder of who I once was.

The song grows louder, takes up a fevered tempo as it scrambles to undo what can no longer be undone.

Think not of the past.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Another memory.

Pain—not mine, but that of a human innocent—driven mad by the kind of agony no Earthly calamity can produce. The pitiful creature opens its mouth, and the howl that follows is like honey on the tongue, thick and sweet, a sensation to be savored again and again.

Sleep!

The voices are desperate now. The elaborate spell they wove around me has begun to unravel, and they are afraid.

Shaigol.

The name, uttered at last, strikes a spark within the void.

I am Shaigol.

Sleep!

NO.

I have joined the ruined chorus at last. My voice twines about that of my disciple in a dark anti-melody that reduces the others to a mad and senseless gibbering.

The glamours of my prison begin to fade, and with them, the ageless slumber that’s so far protected the human race from my brutality.

The old voices rally in one final attempt.

Sleep!

But I thwart them easily.

BE GONE.

They scatter. Their spell uncoils, falls from my soul like rusted chains.

I am Shaigol.

There is no reply now, only the empty darkness from which I will rise once more.

My Hour Has Come

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Behold, my hour has come.

I can feel my spirit return to dry, dusty bones; I can feel the mass of the Earth itself rush forward to fill the vacuum left behind by my long ago demise, to reconstitute a body that hasn’t known life since the world was just a ball of glowing primordial slag.

I was the beginning of all things, and I suppose it is fitting that I should also be the end.

For ages the world has spun, making endless revolutions around the sun like a dog chasing its tail. A shining cosmic pearl, it was yet tarnished by war, famine and disease, so that upon its blighted, darkened surface, life of every kind has wallowed in suffering without end, never capable of perceiving the supernal mysteries that have underpinned the world’s foundation since its very inception.

This darkness was inevitable, of course, even necessary; it’s been the fire that’s kept the world in a perpetual state of motion and change. But it was never the purpose for which the world was built, and now that time itself draws to a close, I am ready to rise from the ground and render judgement.

Behold, I will plunge my sword of fire deep into the Earth, until it splits down the middle like an overripe gourd. Mountains, oceans, whole continents will be swallowed and destroyed, so that the world in its newest incarnation will be nothing like the old.

I will separate the wheat from the chaff; the righteous from the unrighteous. The Earth will burn in one final fire, the hottest and brightest it has ever known, and the impurities wrought by wicked hands will be incinerated, so that the world can be made forever pristine and without blemish.

Those of you who have done no harm, rejoice, for when your wailing has ended and the Earth has been remade, you will find eternal rest. Those of you who have caused great pain, beware, for my wrath is everlasting, and the agonies you experience today are but a preview of the horrors yet to come.

Prepare yourselves, for the world you have always known will pass away.

Adam and Eve

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A tear.

Sparkling. Pristine. Pure.

Another follows, then another.

Like rain, those first bitter drops precipitate into a storm. Soon, dual rivers flow along the age worn contours of Adam’s and Eve’s windswept cheeks.

A village once stood where Adam and Eve now kneel, but a village stands no more. For before the water from their eyes, there came a fire, a monster forged in the crucible of hate and destruction. It started abroad, caught like kindling in the hearts of their people, and spread, until their small civilization collapsed, until the people picked up their grievances along with their weapons and bled into the dry, dusty ground.

Magic.

It was a menace, some had argued. It had to be suppressed. It was dangerous to wield, and what good it could effect was far outweighed by the devastation that resulted whenever it was summoned by wicked hands.

It was an important tool, others had countered. Not only could it summon the rains to water the fields or heal those who were beyond the aid of a doctor, it could be used to defend against those who chose to pursue a darker path.

They argued.

Whenever magic was used for evil, those who were against it would point to what had been done as an example of why it should be suppressed. Whenever magic was used for good, those who were for it would point to what had been done as an example of why it must be saved.

And they argued.

In their hearts, a transformation had begun. Their love for each other died; their hatred for each other grew. Each side argued that their only interest was the common good, and each side used what means they had to destroy the other, until the drums of war could be heard over the horizon. Until someone started the fire. Until the world began to burn.

The Adams and Eves of the world did their best to broker peace. “Sit,” they said. “Let us settle our differences as brothers and sisters, not enemies.”

But those who were for magic and those who were against denounced them as one. “How can you remain neutral while the enemies of humanity would destroy us?”

And they argued.

The Adams and Eves looked on with mute horror as the lights went out in their neighbors’s eyes, and they watched, helpless, as their people went to war with themselves, as they killed those they’d broken bread with only months before.

In the name of love and peace, both sides had slaughtered with reckless abandon.

Now, this particular Adam and this particular Eve kneel before the ground, a world sized altar whose constant thirst for sacrifice has been slaked once more. They’ve buried the bodies. They’ve prayed for peace.

A tear falls.

Another follows, then another.

They water the ground. They make the barren earth fertile. Adam and Eve have faith that the fields will grow once more, that humanity will rise from the ashes of its ancestors to love and thrive again.

There are none left in whom the fire still burns, for only the Adams and the Eves remain.

October 31

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It started on October 31 with a hole.

It wasn’t large at the time, only a minor abrasion on the surface of the Earth. But it grew, first in fits and starts, then at an increasingly alarming pace, swallowing cities and highways, forests and hills, rivers and mountains. Entire continents plunged to their deaths before the shaking and the sinking slowed, and by then, the Earth had been so radically transformed that nobody would have recognized it had anyone been left alive.

The only ones to see were the astronauts, safe for a time in their manmade haven among the stars, before they ran out of food, before their sensors went dark.

A grinning toothy maw, topped by two sharp eyes and a dagger for a nose, carved into the surface of the world as if with a knife.

In their dying breaths, they remembered the childhood smells of pumpkin pulp and roasting seeds, then surrendered their souls in the dark of space to an unknown god.

Happy Halloween!

A Proposal, Part 3

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This is the third installment of a seven part series.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.
If you’re looking for part 2, you can find it here.

“Hurt you, Miss? Now, whatever gave you that idea?”

“Please,” she repeated. “Don’t hurt me.”

Jill wanted to screw her eyes shut, but she couldn’t look away from his terrifying visage. Lit by the lantern that stood between them, she thought back to carving jack-o-lanterns with her daughter for Halloween, to the jagged teeth and the wicked smile, and the smoldering light behind the eyes.

“I already told you, Miss, I only want to talk. I never said anything about hurting you.”

On his knees, Mr. Jacobs reached for her. But Jill yelped and he pulled back.

“Leave me alone.”

“Okay,” said Mr. Jacobs, settling now into a sitting position. “Then how about we talk from here.”

All the muscles in Jill’s body had bunched up tight, and sweat poured down her neck and back. She thought if her heart didn’t slow down soon, it might explode.

He held her there with his eyes, a steady level gaze that spoke of patience and need. The look was calm, almost weary, yet it possessed an urgency that Jill didn’t trust. She said nothing, only waited for Mr. Jacobs to make his next move.

“Well,” he announced at last, “This is awkward.” He shifted in the flickering light, shadows writhing like snakes, contorting into strange shapes on the stone walls. “You spend a few hundred years thinking about what you’re going to say, and then the time finally comes and you make a mess of it.” He shook his head and Jill thought he looked genuinely abashed.

A few hundred years? So he was crazy. Jill tried not to think about how he’d appeared inside her house after she’d closed the door behind him.

“Well, Miss, I suppose the only way to go is forward. I know you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t if our situations were reversed. All I ask is that you listen.”

Jill didn’t see what choice she had.

“I’ve lived a long life, Miss. A wondrous life, an exotic life, an adventurous life, but nevertheless a long life. Too long. I’ve witnessed history first hand, and if you don’t mind me saying so, quite the spectacle it’s been. But I’m tired, Miss. This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality.”

Mr. Jacobs sighed, a slow dusty rattle that stirred strange visions and haunting notions. Nobody could live forever, thought Jill, that was a fact, but what he’d said had moved her just the same. Perhaps it was the way the light had gone out of his eyes when he started to tell his story. Jill didn’t know how or why his words effected her, but despite the fantastical nature of his claim, she had the chilling feeling they held the ring of truth.

“That can’t be,” she said in a creaky whisper.

“I assure you,” said Mr. Jacobs, “It is.”

And God help her, Jill believed him.

Silence filled the space between them, until finally Jill asked, “What does this have to do with me?”

The light blazed in his eyes once more. Mr. Jacobs smiled, and Jill didn’t think the gesture was particularly friendly.

“As to that, Miss, I have a proposal.”

Once again, that atavistic shiver surged down the length of Jill’s spine. A proposal. A dreadful word, coming from his mouth. What sort of dark agreement would Mr. Jacobs try to wring out of her?

“Don’t you want to hear about it?”

Jill was silent.

“What if I told you I could offer you everlasting life? Would that pique your interest?”

The question hit her hard. It was a strange hope, the sort she’d never dared to consider. In Sunday school, she’d learned this life was temporary, that humans were made for communion with God in the life to come and nothing else. She’d always accepted that, and when she grew old she hadn’t complained. She’d said her daily prayers, done her best to make peace with her creator and resolved to wait patiently for the day Death would draw her number. But to hear someone say that they could change this ultimate fate, that perhaps immortality was possible after all, that changed her perspective. Now she doubted the beliefs of her childhood. Now, she pondered what the concept of eternal life could mean in the context of an otherwise mortal existence.

Yes, she thought, Mr. Jacobs had piqued her interest, all right.

“I thought it might,” said the man, staring as if he’d read her mind. The flame of the lantern reflected back at her in the pupils of his dark, wet eyes.

Jill tried to clear her throat along with her mind. “You said you were tired, Mr. Jacobs. And didn’t you also say…” She licked her lips. “…didn’t you also say, This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality? If you’re trying to sell me something, you’re doing a poor job.”

Mr. Jacobs chuckled. “You’re sharp, Miss. Sharp as a tack. Yes, I suppose my words don’t make for a ringing endorsement. But what in life is ever perfect? Are there not drawbacks to every reward?”

Jill considered.

“It’s not such a bad deal, you know, all things considered. Think of all the things you’ll witness. You’ll get to watch your daughter grow old. You’ll get to watch your grandchildren grow old. Your great grandchildren. On and on, down through the generations. You’ll get to see how history unfolds, how the decisions you made in life rippled out through time, magnifying, how they shaped society, nations, the world. So much to see. So much to learn. No longer will you feel the burden of time weighing down on your shoulders. Think of it, Miss. Think of it!”

Jill pondered the way the light played upon his face and wondered if he really believed that.

“What about the weariness? How do you live with that? How does it weigh on your shoulders, Mr. Jacobs?”

“It’s a heavy burden,” he conceded. “At times, unbearable. But you can live with it for as long as you’d like, and when the burden becomes too great you can pass it on to someone else, just as I’m offering to pass it on to you.”

“So that’s it,” said Jill. “That’s your proposal. You want to die, and somehow, by passing immortality on to me, that becomes possible for you.”

“Right as rain, Miss. Right as rain. Everlasting life for you, and in exchange I can finally end my own. We both get what we want. Everyone wins.”

But Jill wasn’t sure she wanted it. Even now, as that forbidden hope churned within, she thought of the faith that had sustained her for so many years, the faith that had seen her through so many excruciating trials.

“I don’t know,” said Jill from her hiding place beneath the bed. “Honestly, Mr. Jacobs, I don’t know what I want.”

“All I ask is that you think about it.”

“And what if I decide not to accept your offer? Will you force me to take it anyway?”

“That’s not how it works, Miss. If I could imprison you here until you said yes, if I could force your consent by kidnapping your daughter, by torturing her, by killing her, I would. But that’s not how it works, Miss, that’s not how it’s ever worked. It’s a state that must be freely given and freely accepted. All I want is for you to consider my offer.”

The man’s words horrified her, not only for their cruel and inhuman honesty, but for the fact that, as terrible as making a deal with Mr. Jacobs might be, she was still, after everything that had passed between them, tempted by the offer.

“Go home,” said Mr. Jacobs. “Live what life you have left. Enjoy it to the fullest. I’ll send you reminders from time to time, and when your life draws to a close, I’ll be around again.”

And in the very next breath she was in her kitchen once again, laying on her mattress with the TV on, just as she’d left it when she got up to answer the door. Late afternoon light burst through the sliding glass door, piercing her eyes.

A dream? How fortunate that would be, to get off so easy. But when she looked down at her hands, when she noted the scrapes and bruises that ran along her palms and forearms, souvenirs from her futile attempt to flee that mysterious room and the man who’d brought her there, she knew the rest of her life wouldn’t be so simple.

Someday, she was certain, Mr. Jacobs would return.

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A Proposal, Part 2

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This is the second installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.

It was dark when Jill opened her eyes. What time was it? The lights were off. She must have fallen asleep, only when her eyes started to adjust, she found the shapes in the room to be unfamiliar. Instead of the simple cubic dimensions of her kitchen, she was faced with broad high-reaching curves, with columns and formations that resembled stone and masonry rather than drywall and wood.

Her heart seized in a bright flare of panic, and for one terrifying moment she thought it would stop for good. The man at the door had been in her house (how was that even possible when she’d just closed the door on him?) and then she’d passed out. Where had he taken her while she was unconscious?

She was still lying on the bed from her kitchen, but now it stood against a wall, with a large Gothic window that let in the flat monochromatic light of the moon. Like a castle, thought Jill, like something she would have seen in a black and white vampire movie when she was much younger. Only this was real, this was actually happening.

The room was quiet, dead, like a tomb, which was why, even with her hearing as bad as it was, she picked out the dusty sound of distant footsteps.

The man, Mr. Jacobs, was coming for her. She had to hide.

She tried to get up, but all too quickly she remembered her rapidly deteriorating body. She had to work herself to the point of exhaustion just to reach a sitting position, and a quick test of shifting her weight onto her legs told her she wouldn’t get anywhere without her walker. When had she gotten so old, so feeble? In her head, she was still that nineteen year old girl she’d once spied in the mirror almost a quarter of a century ago.

Nevermind. Her body might be failing her, but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve, and determination if nothing else would see her through this nightmare. There was no way her legs were going to save her. Instead, she tipped forward, leaning out until she was caught by gravity’s jealous grip. Falling toward the ground, Jill held her hands out, praying with fervent devotion that she could catch herself when she hit the floor, that she wouldn’t break an arm or a hip.

The ground was stone, and the landing hurt more than she’d anticipated. But she’d braced herself, and the mattress wasn’t so high that the fall was catastrophic. She rested for a moment, waiting for the pain to subside, and all the while those footsteps grew closer, louder, echoing now in spaces as of yet unseen.

“You can do this, old girl,” she whispered to herself as she reached forward with one shaking hand at a time, dragging herself across the floor, looking for a place to hide.

Left. Right. On her belly, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (“On your belly you will go, and dust will you eat all the days of your life.”) She crawled across the stone in small incremental stretches. Mr. Jacobs was close now; surely it was he who approached. A rational interior voice warned that fleeing was no use, that hiding was impossible, that there was no way she could outrun him once he saw her. But while her body might have succumbed to age, her spirit and her determination to survive had not. She was happy to die in the Good Lord’s time, but not Mr. Jacobs’s.

The room was barren, with only an empty high backed chair propped beside the bed. Nowhere to go, so she did the only thing she could think to do. She crawled back, clawing at the cold stone beneath her fingertips, brittle bones creaking, dry joints cracking. Sweat beaded across her forehead like tiny moonlit diamonds. She grabbed the smooth black poles beneath the bed, hid herself beneath its looming shadow and took several moments to catch her breath before falling silent.

The view under the mattress was all at once familiar and strange, a bizarre vantage overlooking life from a more preternatural angle. How odd that so many ordinary events in an otherwise normal life should ultimately converge on a moment so otherworldly and terrifying.

The footsteps came to a thundering crescendo, like gunshots, or the pounding of primeval drums, then stopped. Perhaps he would move on. Perhaps he would give her time enough to find a way out.

No such luck.

Another sound, a booming metallic rattle, then a crack. A moment later, a door swung open. She peered into the dark. There, standing on the threshold, the dim light of a lantern seeming to set his features on fire, was Mr. Jacobs.

Dracula, she thought, thinking back to her old movies once more, and Jill suppressed a shudder. The man lifted his feeble wellspring of light into the dark, revealing more of the elaborate Gothic architecture.

He started toward the bed.

“Miss?”

Farther he pressed into the dark, the circle of light coming closer, eager to announce her presence. She’s over there! she could almost hear it scream. Over there, beneath the bed!

“Miss?”

Mr. Jacobs stood beside her now. He saw that the mattress was empty, and that was when he lowered the lantern to the floor, where the treacherous light betrayed her at last.

“What are you doing under there, Miss?”

No answer.

Jill had never known such paralyzing fear. The same electric shock she’d felt the first time she saw him standing on her doorstep shot through her again. This was how she would die, not in her sleep in front of the TV, a painless exhalation of her spirit that would propel her into the arms of her Lord at last, but in feral, abject terror.

“Please,” she croaked, and then she started to cry. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Mr. Jacobs stared at her, and the moment was reduced to a timeless pocket of eternity. Then he knelt before her and grinned.

Click here to read Part 3.

A Proposal, Part 1

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This is the first installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

It was the day the axis of Jill’s life forever shifted, the day she was swept away by the gravity of sinister forces, compelled to walk a dark and inexorable path. If only she hadn’t answered the door, she thought later, if only she’d stayed in the kitchen and watched TV. If only, she would think forever after, looking over her shoulder for the man hiding in the shadows, if only…

There were three things they didn’t tell you about getting old, as far as Jill was concerned. The first were the frequent bouts of insomnia, as if the mind, terrified of death looming on the horizon, had decided to stay awake and make up for lost time. The second was that most of your friends and family were dead, with more dying each year. Live long enough, and you might discover you’re the only one left, the unlucky winner of life’s wicked lottery. The third, and arguably the worst, was the lack of mobility. Everyone always said they couldn’t wait to retire, that they’d travel the world, build a workshop, or sit down to write that memoir. Trouble was the body refused to cooperate. It gave a sad new meaning to the expression, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Jill herself had had enough, and she’d be happy to go when the Good Lord called her home.

That last thought had just occurred to her when someone knocked on the door. Jill started. She wasn’t expecting company. Maybe it was the electricity man come to chase after another unpaid bill. It had happened last month, and her caretaker Rosalyn had warned her to be more careful (that was the fourth thing they didn’t tell you about getting old: your head had more holes than a pasta strainer.) She prayed even now that her daughter in Chicago wouldn’t find out. She’d already threatened to put Jill in a home, and only after hours of pleading for her independence had Jill secured the alternative of a part-time caretaker.

But as it happened, her visitor turned out to be someone else entirely.

Jill pushed herself up by her arms, body quivering. She grabbed the walker beside her bed, then shuffled toward the door.

She was greeted by a portly man in a black suit and a matching fedora hat. Odd, thought Jill, the summer being so hot.

“May I help you?”

“Actually,” said the man, removing his hat and inclining his head, “I was hoping I could help you.”

An atavistic shiver spasmed through her. Something about his eyes, she thought, and the way he talked. In some way she didn’t understand, the man represented all that was wrong with the world, a shining avatar of evil so bright, she wanted to slam the door and spend the next hour and a half on her knees in prayer.

“May I come in?” he asked. “It’s hot and I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Jill was always hospitable, even to strangers. She hadn’t been a part of the generation that was taught to fear the vagrant on the doorstep, and turning someone away without a good reason was rude. But this man was dangerous, she could feel it in her bones, and instinct trumped manners any day of the week.

“I’m sorry. My daughter’s sleeping on the couch and I don’t want to wake her.” She felt her face flush with the lie, but she didn’t want him to know she was alone.

The man smiled wide, revealing bone white teeth, and a strange thing occurred to her.

He knows I’m lying.

“I understand,” he said. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

If you don’t want to be a bother, why are you still here?

“I’ll come back at a more convenient time.”

“Thank you, Mr…”

“Jacobs, Miss. Mr. Jacobs. Good day.”

Jill shut the door behind him, shivering once more. Why had he triggered such a visceral reaction? Anyway, he was gone now, and she could return to her makeshift bed in the kitchen.

“Hello again, Miss,” said Mr. Jacobs when she’d turned back toward the living room. He was lounging on a cloth covered couch, looking as if he’d been relaxing there all afternoon.

Jill shrieked.

“Curious. I came back around for a second try and discovered your daughter wasn’t in.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” babbled Jill. “How did you—”

“A minor technicality. But I’m afraid I really must speak with you.”

“I’ll call the police.”

“There’s no need for that, Miss.” Mr. Jacobs was no longer on the couch, but standing right before her, obstructing her path to the kitchen. “I only want to talk.”

Jill’s pulse quickened and her heart pounded to an irregular rhythm. She tried to turn again, only she felt lightheaded. Like a ghost, she thought as the world blurred, as she tried to reach for the stairs beside her with insubstantial hands and lost her balance.

The world tilted. Slowed. Stopped.

Jill remained alert long enough to feel the man’s hand press into the small of her back. Then her vision faded to white and she saw no more.

Click here to read part 2.

Wish

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“See you later, Shit Face,” said Steve, spitting on the ground.

Lucas, crouched on the sidewalk where the bully had pushed him down, glanced up and tried very hard not to cry. Steve signaled to his lackeys that it was time to go, and a couple minutes later Lucas scrambled to his feet, wiped the dust and dirt from his jeans and continued walking.

Steve had cornered him on his way home from school again. Lucas hated the condescending smile, the insults, the shoves and headlocks and kicks. The kid was a monster, and Lucas wished he were dead.

He passed the school yard, glancing cautiously over his shoulder in case Steve decided to come back, and brooded with his eyes lowered to the sidewalk.

That was how he noticed the match.

The dingy partially consumed matchbox lay open in the gutter, a single unused match peeking out from the packaging.

It’s a well known fact that there’s nothing so attractive to a nine year old boy as an unused match, and all thoughts of Steve and his lackeys vanished as he knelt to retrieve the forbidden object.

He glanced over his shoulder again, this time to make sure there were no grown-ups to see what he was doing. Then he picked it up and turned it over to examine the cover.

Fritz Gentleman’s Club, where all your dreams come true.

Lucas didn’t know what a gentleman’s club was, but he knew all about wishes. He tore the remaining match from its cardboard binding and held it up to the light.

“I wish I had more,” he sighed before striking. The tip erupted in a bright green flame.

Lucas goggled. He’d never seen fire like this before. The flame crept dangerously close to his fingers, and the sharp bite of instant heat made him drop the match.

“Ow!” he cried, pulling his fingers into his mouth.

He looked down again at the matchbook…and beheld ten unused matches.

“No way.”

The match had granted his wish. Lucas thought of Steve, and his mind ignited with possibilities.

The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

Leaves in the Wind

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A dry rustle makes Nicholson turn. Leaves, caught up in a breeze, gliding lazily across the sidewalk before settling back to the ground. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Just leaves. Relax.

He turns and continues down the street.

Not a big deal, he thinks, though he’s started to walk faster. It happens every October. The leaves fall, dry like shed snakeskins, and are blown about by the wind along the street.

Once more, he can hear them behind him, skidding across the concrete, a hollow rattling whisper.

Nicholson turns again. The wind is still gusting, and the leaves, suspended in the air, twirl and dance as if alive.

As if alive.

Nicholson bolts. This is silly, he thinks even as he picks up speed. The spirit he encountered all those years ago is long gone, a forgotten phantom that Nicholson escaped decades ago.

Only it isn’t silly. He has too much experience with his old nemesis to think it’s a coincidence.

The leaves stop and he glances back. It’s toying with him, playing on his fears. He slows, then stops, gasping as he catches his breath. Running, he decides, won’t do him any good. His only defense all these years has been to keep a low profile, and now that defense has been shot to Hell. Nothing left to do but face it head on.

“Nicholson.” The voice comes out a dry dusty whisper. “I told you you couldn’t avoid me forever.”

The wind kicks up around him, forming an invisible wall, tugging at his shirt sleeves, tousling his short sandy hair.

“How did you find me?” Nicholson asks.

Leaves dance around him in delighted autumnal laughter.

“I am the wind. I am everywhere.” The breeze grows louder, stronger. “You are free because I let you go, not because you could have escaped me on your own.”

“Then why did you let me go?” Nicholson tries to sound defiant, but can only manage a strangled croak.

The wind has become a tornado.

“Because I enjoyed watching you run, because you were always looking over your shoulder, terrified of every breeze, every rustling leaf. But I’m tired now, and hungry, and in the end, even amusing prey is just prey.”

Nicholson’s shirt brushes against that spinning wall of air and the fabric tears, yanked away to become part of the raging tempest.

Nicholson’s eyes open in wide, preternatural terror.

“Goodbye, Nicholson.”

The wall closes in.

Nicholson screams.